It is hard to believe that we are nearly at the end of August and yet we are! As if to mark this fact, our Sunday Scripture readings give us a sort of summer school, or catechesis, about the choice of St. Peter as the first pope and so also about the mission and role of the papacy that continues today.

The First Reading (Isaiah 22:19-23) sets the scene for us. Isaiah is actually referring to an historical event. Shebna was the steward or palace governor of King Hezekiah of Judah. Experts think that this king reigned at the end of the seventh century BC or the beginning of the eighth century BC. King Hezekiah was a just and good man, who cared for the poor. He was also a man of great faith. Shebna, sadly, was not. He was a proud and arrogant man and also a plotter and schemer. So, Isaiah prophesies that the king will remove him and replace him with Eliakim (a good and faith-filled man). Perhaps our reading is chosen above all to emphasize the importance of good stewardship, as symbolized in the familiar image of giving keys.
This element of choice and stewardship is given further focus in the psalm (Psalm 138). It sings of how God in his great love and kindness gives us many gifts. We should always remember that they are His gifts and that He builds them up. We must avoid becoming arrogant or proud about them; for God knows the proud and recognizes those who are lowly.

The second reading continues our journey through the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (Romans 11:33-36) that we have been hearing for some time now. St. Paul has finished a long discussion about how God’s plan of salvation has happened and he concludes this section of his letter with what is really a prayer of praise and thanksgiving. As he writes … who can indeed grasp the ways of God and who can give God anything or repay God? After all, as our other readings tell us, we are stewards and not possessors of God’s many gifts to us: family, friends, goods and yes, even our new life in Christ!

So, on we go to the Gospel. It is that well-known passage about the choice of Peter as “the rock.” It is a controversial passage too. For example, the Roman Catholic interpretation about Jesus’ choice of St. Peter as the first pope has been questioned by other Christian denominations over the years. Perhaps we can focus on the dynamics of St. Peter’s choice by Jesus. This begins with his renaming. He is now not Peter, but “the rock.” Names are very important in many cultures, not least in Jesus’ time and place. They indicate a person’s identity and purpose. The naming of Peter indicates a new identity and a new mission: To be the leader of the Church. Incidentally, we might say that a similar thing happens in our baptism. During the rite, the first question that parents are asked is: “What name do you give your child?” Why is this done? Because the soon-to-be baptized will receive many gifts, but also a new identity, purpose and mission.

We can also note that St. Peter was a disciple first and foremost and that he was chosen out of the other disciples. This remains true today. The pope, just like anyone placed in a position of trust and authority, is first of all a disciple. I remember well someone observing beautifully that the funeral of Pope St. John Paul had many world leaders present and had some extra elements, but that it was basically exactly the same as the funeral of any member of the Roman Catholic Church. Also, as a disciple and leader, St. Peter was not perfect; he made mistakes as Scripture attests. When Pope Francis was elected and appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s, he asked for prayers, for, he said, I too am a sinner. What St. Peter had (and Pope Francis has) though was a love of God, despite all their faults or failings.

Our Gospel also makes clear that St. Peter was chosen by Jesus (not the other way around) and given, as we have seen, a particular mission and ministry to be exercised with authority in Jesus’ name: To safeguard, to build up and to be a focus of unity in the Church. In HR (human resources) terms, it has then been the same job description for the last 2,000 years! All this is symbolized in the “keys” that have formed part of the coat of arms of many popes through the centuries. As with our first reading, the keys indicate authority, of course, but also stewardship. The Pope is a steward of so much and so many people and this is why he is called the Servus Servorum Dei: The servant of the servants of God.